Christian Universalism and Interfaith Reconciliation
By Eric Stetson — November 7, 2009
(Note: This is the text of a sermon preached at the Christian Universalist Association “Celebration 2009” conference in Nashville, Tennessee.)
The theme of this conference is “The Reconciliation of All — On Earth as in Heaven.” The CUA Conference Committee deliberately chose this theme because we wanted to move the conversation beyond simply reiterating our nonbelief in eternal hell — a doctrinal position which, though correct and wonderful, has been presented ad nauseam at numerous past conferences of Christian Universalists — and shift to a discussion of how to apply the belief of universal reconciliation in how we live our lives and how we view the role of religion. I believe this discussion of universal reconciliation on earth, even before we get to the hereafter, is the next step that our movement needs to take if we are to remain relevant to the ever-growing number of people who have decided they agree with us that God is love and that people won’t be condemned forever for their mistakes.
I would like to speak to you today about three key principles that can help us to take that next step. First and foremost is the truth that universal reconciliation is not just something God has done or is supposed to do; it’s also something that we are called to do. God expects us to bring about the reconciliation of all souls, through our attitudes and actions.
In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 5, Paul says: “God… reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” [2 Cor. 5:18-20]
So, it is our responsibility to help make the divine plan of universal reconciliation a reality, rather than cynically relegating this world to be a place in which people shall be inevitably divided and fighting with one another, and waiting for the peace of a heavenly afterlife in which God Himself will solve all our problems.
Second is the principle that religion must serve to promote the cause of universal reconciliation. If it is antithetical to this goal, then it ought to be cast aside as worthless or even dangerous. Same goes for specific parts or aspects of a religion — if they aren’t useful for bringing people together, healing wounds, encouraging forgiveness, and enabling people to develop or deepen a relationship with a God who is Love, then we need to look at those things and ask ourselves with piercing honesty, “Do I really need to believe or teach this?”
A key example is the insistence of so many Christians that the linchpin of Christian faith is to “confess that Jesus is Lord.” The term “Lord” is a reference to a patriarchal, authoritarian society, and it was applied to Jesus by early followers of his message who wanted to make the point that the Roman emperor was not divine as he claimed to be; rather this radical Hebrew prophet, teacher, and martyr who held no earthly position of power was the one with true divine power.
Today, however, the expression “Jesus is Lord” is typically misunderstood by both Christians and non-Christians alike. It is seen as a statement expressing the idea that Jesus is concerned about being worshipped; that he demands we bow down to him in a submissive posture in order to be saved from God’s wrath.
Jesus didn’t teach anything of the sort about himself and what our relationship with him should be! He said that he is our teacher and brother and rebuked people when they tried to focus on the idea of him being Lord or Messiah. It’s not that he wasn’t these things, but it’s that Jesus didn’t want to perpetuate the same hierarchical authoritarian relationships of Roman society in the way we view our relationship with God. So we might want to consider letting go of the popular Christian convention of constantly referring to Jesus as “the Lord” and demanding that people view him this way in order to be considered Christian.
A third vitally important principle is that we need to be willing to accept that no single religion or religious system is perfect or has all the answers. And as a corollary to that, we should be open to learn from the good ideas, wise and inspired stories and teachings that are to be found in all religions. One can be a Christian and also see value in various elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Earth-centered and Native American religions, and so forth. There have been prophets, teachers, saints and holy men and women who identified with a wide variety of religions throughout history and all over the world — not just those who called themselves “Christian.”
My own personal experience has been that after coming to accept that all will be saved, I have gradually regained my former interest in all world religions that I had before becoming a Christian. For a while, I resisted this interest to look at scriptures and ideas of other religions because I felt that to be a Christian means to only accept what’s written in the Bible and regard other religions as devoid of divine inspiration and therefore not really worth exploring except for purposes of proving that they are wrong.
However, I eventually came to realize that my faith in Christ is not in any way threatened by reading the Tao Te Ching, the Quran, or any other non-Christian scripture and seeking the wisdom to be found in such writings. Jesus Christ is who he is, period, and nothing we can read or believe could ever change that. And Jesus’ identity as the Master Teacher doesn’t mean that there weren’t also other teachers who had some worthwhile things to share with the world, that we can benefit from.
In conclusion, I encourage everyone to embrace these three principles — our calling to work for reconciliation, the service of religion toward that end, and the openness to an ongoing search for religious truth regardless of the source. If we do so, we will be able to enter into productive dialogue with people of other faiths and foster an attitude of mutual sharing, learning and growth leading to ultimate reconciliation, rather than fighting among each other about whose religion is the best or most accurate representation of divine truth.